There was a time when the leading candidate of today, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., seemed a has-been. He had, after all, spent the entirety of President Duterte’s term steadily losing his election protest. Around this time last year, the political momentum and the expectations of the ruling coalition were purely focused on Sara Duterte who, as late as June 2021, had nearly twice his percentage in voter preference surveys for the presidency. It even seemed for a time that the big players were treating him with barely-disguised condescension because his ambitions were an annoying distraction. But the game came to become a will he or won’t she, won’t he, or will she, game of speculation, one made topsy-turvier by the President’s inability to properly promote his own preferred candidate, Bong Go, to be his successor.
Marcos’ refusal to slide down and Inday Sara eventually sliding down to number two coated him with a veneer of toughness and finally lent him the air of being a winner; it also gave both him and her (Marcos Jr. and Inday Sara, respectively) something they’d lacked thus far: the sense of being backed by a significant because durable coalition featuring former president and speaker Arroyo (plus the Romualdezes). It was this drama, and the coalescing of the veteran politicians, that boosted Marcos’ presidential numbers, and made Sara the person to beat for the presidency. It sucked all the air out of the room, politically speaking, stalling the moderate momentum of Leni Robredo who’d kept the remnants of the opposition guessing, and absolutely depriving the other candidates, Moreno, Pacquiao, and Lacson, of what their candidacies needed, too: drama. The keep ’em guessing plus substitution gambit of 2016 succeeded in its 2021 rerun.
Only after that happened did all the previous investments in time, people, and machinery, particularly online and in media, come to be worth it as far as the Marcoses were concerned. I suppose the only question left is whether it was all inevitable. Was there a genuine reluctance on the part of the big players to immediately concede the role of standard-bearer for the ruling coalition to Marcos? Was there a genuine confusion, or at least reluctance, on the part of Inday Sara to run for the presidency or settle for the vice presidency? Was the President actually convinced he could anoint a successor, or did he get cold feet, leading his prospective anointed, Go, to step back, only to step forward, putting him on a collision course with an Inday convinced that she had a twofold mission, to take out Go, and unite with Marcos?
It seems to be it took a while to broker a Marcos-Duterte ticket not least because the President’s true inclinations were hostile to the idea. But as with the ouster of Pantaleon Alvarez from the speakership, the President had to be saved from himself by a combination of his daughter and the political adults in the room. This has had the added benefit that, for the pre-campaign period, all other candidates found themselves deprived of a means to create, much less benefit from, the kind of drama that promotes bandwagon thinking.
Will it be any different now that the campaign has begun? Marcos Jr. has made Benhur Abalos his campaign manager. A promotion for the man who was his NCR campaign leader in 2016. But no one actually believes he’s really calling the shots: At most, he is a shield to keep Mrs. (Liza) Marcos from being in the spotlight. This early, his campaign can claim the tantalizing possibility of the first majority presidency since (take your pick) either 1986 or 1969. But there remains hope of the others, currently in the teens or less, percentage-wise, to somehow convince the public to join them and thus start giving the Marcoses a run for their money. The Marcoses have to prevent infighting from breaking out, ensure the media remains nonconfrontational and docile, the fandoms that constitute their coalition energized, not jaded, and committed to showing up at the polls. In some ways, as uphill a task, as any other candidate trying to remain viable, four months since the August dramas that actually kicked off the presidential contest.